I really wish I wasn’t writing yet another blog post about this. I wish we were done with it already. It seems the articles, blogs, diary entries, personal testimonials, criminologists, legal experts, historians, anti rape charities and terrible, tiring, triggering explanations will never be enough. So here. Have another little piece of my energy, another little piece of my mental well being. But can you do one thing for me? Please can you at least try? Can you do that? Please at least just try to let this be about rape survivors, not about you.
It may or may not be news to Richard Dawkins and his Twitter supporters whom he is so uncritically retweeting, but the most central moment in processing your rape for many survivors is nothing to do with deciding to report or obtaining a conviction; obtaining the validation of an external legal system that yes, what happened to you should not have happened, because it happened without your consent. It is a moment that happens within you, yourself, where you first apply the dreadful, enormous, shame-associated, guilt-laden, painful word – ‘rape’ – to that terrifying, traumatic, degrading thing that happened to you.
Many, in fact most, rape survivors never report the incident. Many never tell anyone. Let that be your starting point. Rape is not an abstract concept that becomes something else if we call it something else. If you don’t report it, it didn’t magically never happen. If you don’t have a jury convinced that there is a bit less than 100% absolute absence of reasonable doubt, that doesn’t heal you.
Why, then, are so many people obsessed with the technical legalities and the best criteria for reporting or convicting, when this isn’t what defines a rape? The legal technicality is about whether the rapist will be told and made to accept that they are a rapist, and whether they will get some sort of punishment. The point feminists are making is that the important person, who should be centered in all discussions about rape, is the raped person. How do they feel about what happened to them? What do they need to feel safer in their own skin? How will they best be helped and healed? If you wade into a conversation about rape and your starting point is to tell survivors not to report things, not only are you totally telling them not to do something that statistically they most likely weren’t going to do anyway, you’re also making the conversation about something which is actually kind of besides the point.
Let’s just suppose Dawkins gets his wish and all survivors with memory lapses (which, incidentally, is a pretty common and natural response to trauma, something you’d think a scientist would be aware of) stop reporting rape. What next? You must know that isn’t the end of the matter. The nightmares, the flashbacks, the throwing up, the terrified jumping when somebody fucking sneezes or claps their hands behind you, the terror of closeness and intimacy and trust, these things don’t vanish because there’s no been smartly dressed men validating or refusing to validate what happened to you in a courtroom. Life goes on. It gets light. It gets dark. You have a bitterness in your mouth and a fist in your gut every time somebody innocently barks out the word ‘rape.’ You lie awake at night with your eyes open, staring into nothingness, wishing you could sleep. You bite at your hands or cut quietly at your wrists to try and numb it, or make sense of it. You sneak out to the toilets at work to throw up when your colleague says, ha, we totally raped them with that deal. Your partner brushes against you in the night and you shake in fear before you remember where you are. It gets light. It gets dark. It just goes on, you get older, and you get more and more tired of having to explain to people that whatever you call it, whatever words other people approve of you using, whatever you tell people and whatever you keep silent, whatever words other people understand it as, rape is always, always, always still rape.
The difference between the Richard Dawkinses and feminists isn’t that he isn’t aware of all that and feminists are. It’s that it is irrelevant to him, because those stories, those voices, aren’t what he wants to talk about it. But when you talk about rape, that is what you’re talking about, whether you like it or not. There are some people for whom rape is a subjective term, who believe there is a debate as to whether we can apply it to the above scenarios or not. Then there are people for whom it is not subjective; for whom it is painfully specific. For those people, the above scenarios are not a side consideration, or an exception to a rule. They are the entire point of the entire conversation.
And if rape survivors are not the point of your conversation about rape, then what is?